Summary and Analysis Section III: Disadvantages of Existing Government: Federalists No. 16-20 (Madison and Hamilton)



Citing the generally unfortunate experience of confederacies in the ancient world, Hamilton continued his argument by saying that the principle of confederacy was the "parent of anarchy," and an almost certain cause of war. If the union under the Articles of Confederation, not having a large army at its disposal, decided to move against recalcitrant states, such action would bring on war between some states and others — a war in which the "strongest combination would be most likely to prevail, whether it consisted of those who supported, or of those who resisted the general authority."

That would mark the "violent death of the Confederacy," said Hamilton. "Its more natural death is what we now seem to be on the point of experiencing, if the federal system be not speedily renovated in a more substantial form." To be capable of regulating common concerns and preserving general tranquility, a federal government had to extend its agency to the persons of the citizens to be property constituted. "It must stand in need of no intermediate legislations; but must itself be empowered to employ the arm of the ordinary magistrate to execute its own resolutions.

. . . The government of the Union, like that of each State, must be able to address itself immediately to the hopes and fears of individuals."

To the argument that under such a constitution some states might still be recalcitrant, Hamilton replied by drawing a distinction between mere NON COMPLIANCE and a DIRECT and ACTIVE RESISTANCE." As things stood, state legislatures could decide not to act, or to act evasively, on national measures. Under the proposed new constitution, laws of the national government would go by state legislatures and pass into immediate operation upon the citizens themselves. Thus, state legislatures could not block or circumvent execution of the supreme law of the land. If they attempted to do so, their action would be clearly unconstitutional and void, and their constituents, if "not tainted," would rally to the support of the national government.

If opposition to the national government arose on the part of "refractory or seditious" individuals, that could be overcome by the same means daily used by state governments against that evil. As to those 11 mortal feuds" that in certain situations spread like a conflagration through a whole nation, or a large part of it, occasioned by "weighty causes of discontent given by the government, or from the contagion of some violent popular paroxysm," such upheavals usually resulted in resolution and dismemberment of empires, and were beyond the ordinary rules of calculation. No form of government can always avoid such great uprisings, or contain them.

"It is in vain to hope to guard against events too mighty for human foresight or precaution," Hamilton concluded, "and it would be idle to object to a government because it could not perform impossibilities."

In answer to the argument that the principle of legislating for individual citizens would tend to make the central government too powerful and tempt it to usurp powers proper to the states in regulating purely local affairs, Hamilton replied that this was most unlikely. Federal councils would not be tempted to get into local affairs because such action would contribute nothing "to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendour of the national government."

Indeed, the danger was the other way round. Being closer to the people, state governments could more easily encroach upon the national authorities than the latter upon state authorities.

Hamilton cited the ancient feudal systems as an example of the experience of all confederate systems. While admitting that the analogy was not strictly true, Hamilton maintained that the feudal systems "partook of the nature" of confederacies. There was a sovereign, or chieftain, with authority over the whole nation; under him were a number of subordinate vassals, or feudatories, holding vast lands; and under the feudatories, or barons, were numerous inferior vassals and retainers who held their lands at the pleasure of the barons.

"Each principal vassal was a kind of sovereign within his particular demesnes." The result was continual opposition to the sovereign's authority and frequent wars between the great barons themselves, a period known to historians as "the times of feudal anarchy."

There occasionally appeared a superior sovereign who, through personal weight and influence, managed to establish some order and keep the peace. But in general, Hamilton observed, "the power of the barons triumphed over that of the prince; and in many instances his dominion was entirely thrown off, and the great fiefs were erected into independent principalities or states.

. . . The separate governments in a confederacy may aptly be compared with the feudal baronies . . . .

Madison went on with the historical analogies, digging into ancient history to consider the Amphictyonic Council of ancient Greece. Made up of independent Greek city states, all of them republics, the council bore, in Madison's view, "a very instructive analogy to the present confederation of the American States." Rivalries and conflicts of interest among the members of the council led to weaknesses and disorders, and finally to internecine wars that wrecked this early confederacy.

It was succeeded by the Achaean League, another society of Greek republics. The league worked better than the council because the central governing body had more authority. But that authority was not strong enough, with the result that the league fell apart into warring factions. Foreign princes began playing one side against the other. The Romans were invited to come in by one faction, and the Romans never left, soon reducing all of Greece to a dependency, extinguishing the "last hope of ancient liberty."

Madison next took up the problems of what he called the "Germanic Body," noting that the Germanic tribes had approximated themselves into seven distinct nations. Among these were the Franks, who conquered the Gauls and established a kingdom. By the end of the eighth century Charlemagne, as King of France, conquered most of Germany and made it part of his vast empire. Later, when the empire weakened, the principal German vassals, whose fiefs had become hereditary, threw off the imperial yoke and set themselves up as independent sovereigns.

But there remained a Diet, a legislative assembly, an arm of a German confederacy. The Diet had general powers in legislating for the empire, subject to the emperor's veto. From its constitutional structure, one might suppose that the German confederacy would be an exception to the general character of confederacies. Quite the contrary, said Madison. The history of Germany was a history of civil wars and foreign invasions, of oppression of the weak by the strong, and "of general imbecility, confusion and misery."

Anticipating argument, Madison declared that the connection among the Swiss cantons scarcely amounted to a confederacy, though sometimes cited as an instance of the stability of such institutions. The Swiss had no common treasury, no common troops, no common coin, no common judiciary, nor any common mark of sovereignty. The Swiss cantons were held together "by the peculiarity of their topographical position, by their individual weakness and insignificancy, by the fear of powerful neighbors."

Remarking that the United Netherlands was a confederacy of seven equal and sovereign republics, Madison went at considerable length into the constitutional structure of that country. Summing up his findings about the "celebrated Belgic confederacy," Madison asked what had been its general character and answered, at least to his own satisfaction:

Imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace, and peculiar calamities from war.

In concluding this part of the essay series, Madison said he had no apology to make "for having dwelt so long on the contemplation of these federal precedents."

Madison used, to the point of tedium, detailed historical analogies and often dubious and generally simplistic contemplations on what he pronounced to be the universal failure of confederacies.


In these five essays Madison and Hamilton belabor their contention that the principle of confederacy was the "parent of anarchy," as well as the fertile soil for wars both civil and foreign.

Digging into history to buttress their contention with analogies, it was ingenious, to say the least, to assert that the feudal systems during the Dark Ages and Middle Ages in Europe "partook of the nature of confederacies." To compare the thirteen confederated American states with the oppressive and constantly warring feudal baronies was certainly farfetched, but Hamilton pursued his point that America was rapidly approaching "times of feudal anarchy."

Nor were the analogies from the history of ancient Greece much more germane. The Greek city states — Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and others — had deeper and more serious problems than the exact terms of their confederated cooperation in the Amphictyonic Council and its successor, the Achaean League, both of which failed of their purpose.

The analogies drawn from the history of the "Germanic Body," and from the histories of Switzerland and Holland were even less accurate.

Madison and Hamilton went out of their way to declare that the close cooperation among the Swiss cantons did not constitute a confederacy at all, and that the United Netherlands, a confederation of seven Dutch republics, was an "imbecility in government."

What the authors refrained from remarking was that the Swiss and the Dutch people, whatever their governmental "imbecility," were better off, for the most part, than the people ruled by "strong" governments in the monarchies of Britain, France, Spain, Russia, and the fragmented German and Italian states and principalities.